Stratton House closing prompts discussion of elder care

09/23/02 12:00AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) The Stratton House nursing home in Townshend is known for its friendly atmosphere and loyalty in the region. But recently the nursing home announced that it would close this fall. The news forced this Windham County community to reconsider how to care for its growing elderly population.

VPR's Susan Keese has more.


(Phone rings, "Stratton House.")

(Keese) Stratton House is almost empty this September morning. Just this spring, the 18-bed nursing home received the state's Quality of Care award. Eight weeks later, it announced its plan to close in November.

Lawrin Crispe is the chairman of the nursing home's parent organization. He says the decision was painful,
but necessary.

(Crispe) "Our losses were growing and growing every year, and we had, over the last few years, made every effort we could to make up those losses. But it became apparent to us that this was going to be a continuing situation that unfortunately we just couldn't cope with financially."

(Keese) Stratton House is Vermont's smallest nursing home. It's part of the Otis Health Care Center, which includes Grace Cottage, the state's smallest hospital. For years Grace Cottage and Stratton House stood side by side in wooden houses near the Townshend town common.

In the 1990's, the state threatened to close the antiquated buildings. So community supporters raised almost a million dollars and built the new Otis Health Care Center. Stratton House had a wing of its own, with a sunny common room and a big garden.

Townshend resident Elizabeth Garfield was one of many locals who were upset by the decision to close.

(Garfield) "We felt betrayed. We have put money in this Stratton House, Grace Cottage Hospital since 1950. And they had just received $25,000 and an award for a perfect inspection and two weeks later we read they're closing Stratton House! With no warning!"

(Keese) Citizens circulated petitions demanding a meeting with trustees. They turned out for two meetings, looking for answers and for a way to keep the nursing home alive. They were told that the decision was final.

Robert Backus, a physician and trustee, said the losses at Stratton House placed the entire complex in jeopardy.

(Backus) "I did not feel it was fair to keep the people of this community, who have given of their heart and soul and constantly of their moneys to keep this institution open, to ask them to fund losses that were growing geometrically and with no end in sight."

(Keese) Andrea Seaton is the executive director of the Health Care Center's foundation. Seaton says an 18-bed nursing home with a waiting list of 50 people could not begin to meet the needs of a growing elderly population.

(Seaton) "As long as we had to devote so many of our resources to Stratton House, we weren't going to be able to look at how we were going to be able to serve the wider community."

(Keese) Stratton House spokespeople say they're part of a trend that has meant fewer dollars for nursing homes nationally and statewide. It's a movement away from institutions, and towards services that keep many elders living in their communities.

Patrick Flood, Vermont's commissioner of aging and disabilities, confirms that the emphasis has shifted. But he says Vermont has continued to support good nursing home care. Flood says Stratton House might have managed to survive through economies like raising private pay rates.

(Flood) "To be fair, if you're going to have small nursing homes you're gong to have greater costs. But at the same time, I think there are certain things they could have done to close the gap. They did seem to use licensed practical nurses more than they used nursing assistants, which is something they could have taken a look at."

(Keese) But the trustees say they considered every option.

And the community seems to be moving on. Citizens have formed a committee to devise a plan to provide care for all the elders in the community.

Otis Health Care Center's plans include expanding its adult daycare program. Medical staff here - who already make house calls - hope to increase home health services. The Center also hopes to expand Heins Home, its residential home for elders who don't need 24-hour nursing care.

Trustee Chairman Crispe acknowledges that there will always be a need for some nursing home services. But he's optimistic that the problems can be solved.

(Crispe) "I think you're going to see in the next couple of years that Grace Cottage will remain as strong a player in the welfare and health in the elder community as it ever was. It's just going to be a different approach."

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Susan Keese in Townshend.
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